It's butterfly season! How many have you counted in your garden? From the tiny pygmy-blues to the much-loved monarchs, their variety and beauty is amazing. Here are some butterfly facts that will increase your appreciation for these winged wonders as you watch them flutter through your garden.
Common buckeye butterfly
Butterflies belong to a class of insects called Lepidoptera, which means 'scaly wings' in Greek. According to the North American Butterfly Association (NABA.org), there are more than 20,000 butterfly species throughout the world, with about 725 species in the U.S., and over 2000 species in Mexico. The most common butterfly in the U.S. is likely the cabbage white butterfly.
Butterflies cannot fly when the air temperature falls below 55 degrees because they are cold-blooded: they cannot regulate their body temperature. Butterflies rest with their wings closed, unless they are basking: soaking up the heat from the sun. They usually do this perched on a leaf, a rock, or a sandy area on the ground.
Most adult butterflies live only three or four weeks – as long as something doesn't eat them first – long enough to mate and lay eggs.
A butterfly sips nectar through its proboscis, a curled tongue that it unfurls to eat. They use every calorie – they don't even excrete during their brief adult lifetimes.
Great spangled fritillary butterfly
You probably know that monarch butterfly caterpillars only eat milkweed. But did you know that the great spangled fritillary caterpillar feeds exclusively on violets? A number of butterfly species eat only one type of plant. Reliance on a single food source puts them at risk when human development and invasive plants reduce their habitat, eliminating the plants they rely on. But gardeners can help by growing these plants.
Butterflies other than monarchs migrate, including the cabbage white and painted lady. They only travel hundreds of miles rather than the up to 4000 miles that monarchs do.
Red banded hairstreak butterfly
A true butterfly garden is a diner: it contains a variety of plants grown so butterfly larvae can eat them. This means a successful butterfly garden will be a bit raggedy and chewed up. Not everyone who covets a butterfly garden reckons with this. Yet any dismay over a less-than-pristine appearance should be tempered by the satisfaction of knowing it's temporary and you'll be rewarded by seeing those hungry caterpillars reappear in all their butterfly glory.
Plants that really bring the butterflies include asters, milkweeds and butterfly weed, yarrows, black-eyed Susan, lantana, French marigold, blazing star, and zinnia. There are hundreds of others depending on where you live and your climate. The Xerces Society has more information: Xerces.org.
Tiger swallowtail butterfly
And while we're talking plants that are attractive to butterflies, let's bust a myth. Butterfly bush (Buddleia) is not the sure-fire butterfly plant we've been led to believe. Butterfly bush is not native to North America and has become invasive in many states, crowding out the actual plants that many caterpillars feed on. While adults like its nectar, butterfly bush is not a host plant for caterpillars and not even that great of a butterfly magnet compared to other, usually native, plants.
Finally, a refresher: If you want your garden brimming with butterflies, site it in full sun, provide a variety of larval host plants and adult nectar plants as well as a water source, and don't use pesticides or herbicides, even organic ones.
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